Children who immigrate to Canada after the age of nine are far more likely to drop out of school and never go back, a new study suggests.
Researchers looked at the census data of more than 100,000 new Canadians who immigrated before the age of 18.
The study showed a link between educational achievement and the age at which a child learned English or French.
Miles Corak, a University of Ottawa labour economist, led the study. He says children who came to Canada before the age of nine performed well in school — in fact they often did better than their domestically born peers.
"This is the first time we've seen this distinct pattern in Canadian research, in part because it's been dominated by focus on adults," he said.
Corak found that children who came later fared far worse.
"It's like taking a step down a slippery slope. So high school dropout rates begin to increase quite distinctly for children who come here after the age of nine and they continue increasing by about one or two percentage points for every year after the age of nine, reaching as high as one in five for kids who come here in the high school years," he said.
Corak found that children coming from English- or French-speaking countries did not face the same challenges at older ages, and so early language acquisition appears to be a key.
Education experts say there are other reasons older immigrant children do less well.
Jennifer Adams, director of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says older children have often missed out on education altogether.
"That population of students, some of them are coming in from refugee camps, some are coming from war-torn countries, some are coming in from countries where there's very little formal schooling," she said.
Adams says there are two challenges for those students: improve their English as fast as possible, and work on catching up to their grade level.
"When you look at the dropout rate, part of why they drop out is because that road ahead is so huge. And our job is to keep them connected to the school, keep them optimistic and get them caught up as quickly as possible," she said.
The findings call into question several aspects of current federal immigration policy, Corak said, arguing policies like bringing in temporary foreign workers should be reconsidered.
That's because the children of those workers often arrive years after their parents first come here, putting their futures in jeopardy.
"The younger [they arrive], the better. It doesn't really matter if you come as a newborn or a nine-year-old, the outcomes are the same," he said.
Corak points to other countries as an example of what could happen if the children of immigrants can't find work.
"The troubles we saw in France, in the U.K., in Australia, on the beaches of Sydney or the suburbs of Paris, were not actually immigrants — they were the children of immigrants. And so in terms of our long-term success, we should be focusing in an important way on how immigrant children do."